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As a program director for a Masters degree in a business school, I am curious to know about higher education policies regarding disciplinary sanctions for plagiarism. This is for both official rules and in actual cases.

I am most interested in the cases where the characterization of plagiarism is not a black and white situation (as is often the case), but the stakes are not minor. To imagine an abstract case: plagiarism committed on a part of a final dissertation. How can disciplinary sanctions scale, before going all out with suspending or expelling the student, while remaining deterring?

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    A possibly significant issue is "sending a message" to other students about the consequences of plagiarism. Even if there is no public announcement about the given student's behavior and consequences, there will be information leaked by the student themself, etc. For example, if a single plagiarism offense incurs no punishment... a certain number of kids will accept that as a game-theoretic opportunity. Dec 12 '20 at 20:25
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    A master thesis is a fairly large project. If the student needs to start it over because it gets rejected, that is relatively severe. As in the projected graduation date is postponed by a semester at least. Sounds like a deterrent to me. Dec 13 '20 at 16:57
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    "I am most interested in the cases where the characterization of plagiarism is not a black and white situation (as is often the case), but the stakes are not minor." Sorry, but that's gibberish.
    – Karl
    Dec 13 '20 at 17:56
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    @Karl Cases where you can say “more plagiarism” and “less plagiarism”, or “worse plagiarism” and “better plagiarism”, or “more certain” and “less certain” – and cases where what happens is a big deal.
    – wizzwizz4
    Dec 13 '20 at 22:48
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    @Karl: Plagiarism has a scale; if nothing else the amount of plagiarized text can be a scale.
    – Joshua
    Dec 14 '20 at 23:06
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If you wait until the very end of the program when a student submits a thesis to check for plagiarism, then you've set up a situation where a student can cheat through the program and then gets caught at the very end.

An alternative approach would be:

  1. Teach students about plagiarism and other academic honesty issues early in the program. Give them fair warning that plagiarism can result in their being expelled from the program.

  2. Include assessments of students writing throughout the program and check this writing for plagiarism. If you catch a student committing plagiarism on one of these assignments, give them a strong warning and perhaps penalize their grade.

  3. Require students to submit draft versions of their theses for evaluation and feedback from the supervisor. Check for plagiarism starting with the first draft.

  4. Some central office should keep track of incidents of cheating so that penalties can be increased for repeat offenders. This is particularly important because otherwise a student might cheat in classes with different instructors and receive warnings from each of them.

The basic idea here is that the consequences for misbehavior should be explained in advance and punishments should escalate with each new offense. If a student has been warned and suffered a grade penalty on the first offense, then failed a course and had to retake it on a second offense, then it should come as no surprise that they are expelled from the program for a third offense.

Since the potential consequences are quite severe, it's also important to offer students a reasonable opportunity to appeal their punishment for cheating. There might be a committee charged with considering student appeals.

My institution and many others in the US have systems like the one that I've described above. In my experience, many students who receive a strong warning on a first offense take that warning to heart and have no further problems. Other students become chronic offenders and suffer the full consequences.

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    It's not clear to me whether the OP was asking about policies that could be implemented in the future or how to deal with a current situation with no effective policies in place. Dec 12 '20 at 20:27
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    Long term this is a good approach, so +1.
    – Buffy
    Dec 12 '20 at 22:49
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    It may well be that the Master thesis is the FIRST time the student is required produce a substantial amount of text under their own steam.. Up to that point it has been mostly exams. Possibly a small number of practice essays, where the emphasis is in learning basic academic writing skills, and all the material was provided by the supervisor, so plagiarism was not really a relevant concern. At least that's how it goes in the math program I'm a part of. Dec 13 '20 at 16:53
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    "Teach students about plagiarism and other academic honesty issues early in the program. Give them fair warning that plagiarism can result in their being expelled from the program." +1 for this! People coming from other programs might be accustomed that plagiarism in the small projects they've done before, is not a big issue. People might come from countries where plagiarism is almost normalized, it's all fun and games, and even if caught, the punishment is not much more than a slap on the wrist. They have to get explicitly told of the grave consequences.
    – vsz
    Dec 14 '20 at 8:57
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    +1, though: " If you catch a student committing plagiarism on one of these assignments, give them a strong warning and perhaps penalize their grade." - no. If they are caught, definitely hit them in the grade. You taught them about the seriousness of plagiarism in step 1. If they are caught in step 2 and let off with a slap on the wrist, they will deduce that plagiarism is no big deal after all. And they will tell all their friends. So: make consequences clear in step 1 and stick to them. Of course, these could be different between assignments and a final thesis. Dec 14 '20 at 10:49
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characterization of plagiarism is not a black and white situation (as is often the case)

In the systems I am familiar with, you do not scale discipline based on the quality of the evidence. If there is proof (beyond reasonable doubt, for example), you discipline. If there is not proof, you do not discipline.

Typical discipline for plagiarism is any of:

  1. Lowest possible grade for the assignment.
  2. Failing grade for the course.
  3. Expulsion.

Most important is to apply the discipline consistently.

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    I believe by black and white he meant amount or degree of plagiarism, an uncredited sentence, vs turning in War and Peace as a writing assignment, not proof that plaghappened.
    – jmoreno
    Dec 14 '20 at 12:48
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    @jmoreno Consequences should be the same for both. Dec 15 '20 at 0:11
  • Three to five possible unintentionally words vs 1,225 pages and you think the consequences should be the same...I’d say “shaking my head”, but don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.
    – jmoreno
    Dec 15 '20 at 0:16
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    @jmoreno That's not what I said. Three words of proven plagiarism should have the same consequences as 1000 pages of proven plagiarism. Dec 15 '20 at 0:35
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    @AnonymousPhysicist They really shouldn't... forgetting to put quote marks and a citation around around a short quote is technically plagiarism but can quite easily be an honest mistake. There should obviously be different consequences between intentional and accidental plagiarism. Dec 15 '20 at 14:18
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Not seeing the details and relying only on your description, let me suggest that if it isn't a "black and white" case then the correct action is an educational one, not a disciplinary one. The paper should be corrected and the result evaluated after discussing the issue with the student.

But a clear case of plagiarism, when the "stakes are not minor" would be to reject the paper altogether and let the consequences flow from that depending on other policies. It might result in expulsion or it might require the student to start over, but that is a separate issue.

Another recent question here is similar. What should be done about "suspected but not proved" cheating. My answer was to ignore it. Without proof, a disciplinary action is unjust. (Note: ignore the potential "infraction". The paper itself in your situation probably can't stand without correction.)

For someone who is not a student (i.e. a professor or researcher) the penalties for plagiarism can be quite severe, because professionals should know the rules and have been expected to practice them in all situations. Student's, however are not yet professionals, so their misdeeds need to be treated in an educational context. That doesn't mean ignored, but you need proof of intent to "bring down the hammer".

Students can't be expected to "just know" these things, nor to have practiced them enough to avoid sloppiness.

If you handle it correctly, as an opportunity to educate, you might just save someone from ruination, now or later. The paper almost certainly needs a change if it isn't rejected, of course.

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In compliance with whatever your university's policies are.

Most universities should have a formal policy governing academic integrity and plagiarism, as well as how to handle academic integrity complaints. This could involve formal tribunals, specific processes that the professors should follow, a student honor code, or other such administrative details. These are typically designed to preserve the university's integrity as an educational institution (and thus the value of their degrees), while also protecting the university from lawsuits from aggrieved students who feel that they were punished and denied their degrees or expelled without due process.

As such, I would ensure that any rules and processes you put in place for your program are in compliance with your university's formal rules and processes. If your university doesn't have any formal rules and processes, I would recommend having a discussion with other high-ranking staff at your university such as the dean and other program directors about creating them.

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In addition to what others have described, it is worth analyzing the cause of plagiarism. Some examples.

  • Plagiarism as a mistake, e.g. missing reference
  • Inadvertent plagiarism due to different traditions/cultures
  • Plagiarism due to laziness/stupidity, e.g. copy-pasting a relevant passage from the coursebook instead of rephrasing and referencing it.
  • Purposeful plagiarism, e.g. asking another student to write a section in their dissertation

The first two could be solved by reminding/educating students about what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. And, perhaps, reducing their grade or asking them to write a short essay to analyze how they have used others work.

The latter requires a more severe action, kicking them out or suspending them until the next year to submit their dissertation.

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